• U.S.

‘It’s Creating a Witch Hunt.’ How Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s Anti-Trans Directive Hurts LGBTQ Youth

8 minute read

When Lisa Stanton looked at her phone on Wednesday morning, she felt like she’d been “physically punched.”

The day before, Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a letter directing the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to conduct “prompt and thorough” investigations into the families of trans and gender expansive youth who’ve received gender-affirming care, asserting that the care can “legally constitute child abuse.”

Stanton and her family have long been public about their 11-year-old daughter, Maya, being trans. Maya testified in the state capital in 2021 against proposed legislation that would have criminalized gender-affirming care. And when Stanton opened her phone Wednesday morning, she saw a wall of social media messages from strangers saying they’d already reported her to Protective Services.

“I know I’m a good parent,” says Stanton, who lives in Houston. “My child is happy and healthy and thriving, and I know that what I’m doing is right for her.” Yet the messages still terrified her.

“It’s creating a witch hunt environment, ” she says. “This further ostracizes families like ours.”

Read more: Pediatricians Who Serve Trans Youth Face Increasing Harassment. Lifesaving Care Could Be on the Line

In his letter, the Governor also called on “licensed professionals” and “members of the general public” to report the parents of trans youth to state authorities if it appeared they’d received gender-affirming care. The letter came a day after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton released an opinion stating that elements of gender-affirming care constitute child abuse.

Gender-affirming care models—which can include treatments that help align a person’s sex characteristics with their gender identity—are supported by all relevant major medical organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association. Trans and gender expansive children cannot receive affirming medical treatment without their parent’s or guardian’s consent in the U.S. healthcare system, and an emerging body of research has found that affirming care models can result in young people having fewer mental health concerns.

It’s unclear what the Governor’s directive will practically look like. In a Tuesday tweet, he said that DFPS will “enforce this ruling and investigate and refer for prosecution” instances of minors receiving affirming care. DFPS told TIME on Wednesday that it would comply with the Governor’s directive. But five Texas district attorneys, including the DAs of Dallas County and Houston’s Travis County, issued a statement Wednesday night condemning Abbott’s directive and saying they plan to “enforce the Constitution” and not “irrationally and unjustifiably interfere with medical decisions between children, their parents, and their medical physicians.”

The White House also spoke out against the Governor’s announcement Wednesday morning in a statement to the Dallas Morning News. “Conservative officials in Texas and other states across the country should stop inserting themselves into health care decisions that create needless tension between pediatricians and their patients,” said Karine Jean-Pierre, deputy White House principal press secretary.

Gov. Abbott did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.

Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), tells TIME that the Attorney General’s opinion and the Governor’s directive to DFPS have no binding legal effect. The Attorney General’s opinion is an interpretation of existing law, but the state’s standards for child abuse investigations itself has not changed, Strangio says. Nor has the standard under family law that must be met in order for an investigation to be initiated.

“It’s egregious. It’s harmful. It’s political posturing. But it doesn’t change anything as a matter of law,” Strangio says.

Even still, LGBTQ advocates have decried the Governor and Attorney General’s announcements as a dangerous attempts to rally the GOP base ahead of Texas’ midterm primary elections on March 1. Both Abbott and Paxton are in competitive races for reelection. Austin Davis Ruiz, communications director for the Houston LGBTQ+ Political Caucus, says he thinks a “focal point” of Texas’ 2022 midterms will be LGBTQ rights.

And Lisa Stanton tells TIME she feels like her family is being used as a political pawn. “While this might seem like a smart political maneuver to shore up the voter base, there are real consequences and real harm that’s already been done as a result,” she says.

Read more: Gender-Affirming Hormone Therapy for LGBTQ Youth Can Help Save Lives, Study Finds

Ruiz says the Houston LGBTQ+ Political Caucus has seen a “coordinated assault on trans youth” from state leadership over the past year. Last year the state legislature failed to pass a bill that would have criminalized elements of gender-affirming care, but in October successfully enacted a law banning K-12 students from playing on sports teams aligned with their gender identity.

Texas fits into a larger trend of heightened scrutiny of trans and gender expansive youth across the U.S. In 2021 alone, over 130 anti-trans bills were introduced into state legislatures, according to the LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, including 35 bills that would criminalize gender-affirming care (Arkansas’ ban was signed into law but blocked by a federal judge.) As of Feb. 11, the ACLU has tracked similar bills banning affirming care in at least 17 state legislatures this year.

Advocates say Abbott’s directive to DFPS could have deadly consequences. A peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health on Dec. 14 and conducted by researchers at the LGBTQ suicide prevention nonprofit The Trevor Project found that the use of gender-affirming hormone therapy (GAHT) is significantly related to lower rates of depression, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts among transgender and nonbinary youth. The study also found that among young trans and nonbinary people under 18, receiving GAHT was associated with nearly 40% lower odds of having had a suicide attempt in the past year.

A national poll released by the Trevor Project Jan. 10 found that 85% of trans and non-binary youth surveyed between Sept. 14 and Nov. 5 2021 said recent debates about state laws restricting the rights of trans people has negatively impacted their mental health.

“Our state has made it more clear that they’d rather see dead kids than trans kids alive and well,” argues Emmett Schelling, the executive director for the Transgender Education Network of Texas (TENT).

Read more: America’s Foster Care System Is a Dangerous Place for Trans Teens. Now They’re Fighting for Change

Lisa Stanton says she’s now barely sleeping. She lies in bed turning over and over different possibilities. “What if someone calls CPS and we didn’t get an agent that’s [gender] affirming, and they make a recommendation that [Maya should] be removed from our home during the investigation?” she says. While Stanton feels strongly that an investigation would go nowhere, the process would still be “extremely traumatizing” for her daughter and family.

After she received the barrage of messages Wednesday morning, Stanton started reorganizing Maya’s “safe folder”—a folder of her daughter’s medical history that includes affirming letters from her doctor, family and friends to show a DFPS agent if they come to her door.

“[I can’t believe] I have to have a folder with this type of documentation,” she says. “I’m listening to the advice of doctors, yet I’m being told by politicians that what I am doing is wrong.”

Stanton hasn’t lost hope, though. Throughout Wednesday, she also received a flood of texts from friends and allies saying they stand with her family. She says it helped her feel less alone. But people need to do more than just send messages of support, she continues. “Write letters, campaign and vote,” she says. “Do everything in your power to make sure people like this aren’t elected again.”

When Stanton’s husband saw the news of Abbott’s announcement, the first thing he did was step out of the office for a moment and cry, he tells TIME. And the second thing he did was walk to an early voting booth and cast his ballot.

If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.

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Write to Madeleine Carlisle at madeleine.carlisle@time.com